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Thomas A. Edison:
Unorthodox Submarine Hunter


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U-Boat preparing to inspect a merchantman by by Felix Schwormstadt

Originally published as a paper for the Madison Literary Club, 8-Sep-1986

Thomas A. Edison: Unorthodox Submarine Hunter

by E. David Cronon

When the first World War broke out in Europe in August of 1914, Thomas Alva Edison, the famous American inventor, was already sixty-seven years old. He was still putting in an exhausting work schedule at his Orange, New Jersey, laboratory and industrial complex, where, he liked to point out, he followed the eight-hour day - eight hours in the morning and eight hours in the after-noon! Still, it seemed unlikely that at his age Edison would play any significant role in the conflict, even if the United States should eventually become involved. Yet when Germany's submarine campaign threatened to defeat the Allies by starving Britain into submission, Edison was enlisted in the U.S. Navy's effort to find effective ways to cope with the deadly German U-boats. While the story of Edison's involvement in the war effort is one of the lesser sidelights of World War I, it deserves more of a telling than it has had up to now. This paper will seek to rectify that omission and in the process recount some of the difficulties in what turned out to be a sometimes stormy marriage between one of America's foremost advocates of rugged individualism and a governmental agency that constituted probably the nation's most stuffy and hidebound bureaucracy.

By this stage of his life Edison was a genuine American folk hero, the epitome of indefatigable Yankee ingenuity in the new age of science and technology. Nearly every school child was familiar with Edison's life story and could list his major inventions: the stock ticker, the incandescent electric light bulb, the phonograph, the moving picture, the alkaline storage battery, and a host of other electrical applications. Many larger towns and cities boasted their Edison Companies to supply electric power, although they no longer had any connection with the Wizard of Menlo Park, and he had long since lost the battle to make direct, rather than alternating, current the national standard. Everyone sympathized with his deafness, which he attributed to a trainman's having lifted him by his ears as he ran to climb onto the steps of a departing train when he was a twelve-year-old railroad newsboy. Whatever the cause of his deafness, Edison always contended it was as much a blessing as a curse. As a young man it made him a better telegrapher, he said, because it screened out distracting background noise. Since he had little formal education, Edison's deafness also early encouraged his lifelong interest in self-improvement through reading. Later it led him to develop the essential carbon transmitter for Bell's telephone because he had difficulty hearing its faint sounds. "The telephone as we now know it might have been delayed," Edison pointed out, "if a deaf electrician had not undertaken the job of making it a practical thing." As for the phonograph, he explained: "Deafness, pure and simple, was responsible for the experimentation which perfected the machine."

Although Edison visited Europe in 1911 and came away greatly impressed with the highly developed state of applied scientific research in Germany, his initial reaction to the outbreak of war in Europe was dismay and disgust with both sides. "This war had to come," he told a Detroit reporter while on a visit his good friend Henry Ford shortly after the war began. "Those military gangs in Europe piled up armaments until something had to break." As for himself, he wanted no part in the conflict. "Making things which kill men is against my fiber. I leave that death-dealing work to my friends the Maxim brothers", a backhanded slap at his old rivals in electric lighting (2).

Edison felt the effect of the war almost immediately. His West Orange phonograph record factory used a ton-and-a-half of phenol or carbolic acid each day, which was imported from Britain and Germany. Edison's plant was by far the largest consumer of phenolic resins in the country, and he had only ten weeks' supply when the wartime embargo cut off his shipments. Although experts told him that American coal was not pure enough for the manufacture of phenol, that it would be uneconomic to produce it here, that its production details were largely trade secrets, and that in any event it would take many months to develop an American supply, Edison characteristically refused to allow his phonograph record plant to become the first American war casualty. When he was unable to interest any American chemical company in developing a phenol manufacturing facility, he assigned 40 of his staff to work around the clock on three eight-hour shifts to design and test a process for the production of synthetic phenol. Within a week he had other crews constructing a plant on a three-shift, seven-day week basis. Eighteen days after ground-breaking the plant began production, and within a month after the initial work on the project commenced, a ton of phenol of better purity than the natural product was being produced. A month or so later, the full production capacity of six tons a day was reached, so that Edison could now sell some of his supply to other users. Subsequently Edison's factories began producing a number of other strategic organic chemicals whose prewar German sources of supply had been cut off by the war (3).

In the 1890's Edison had shown some interest in naval affairs. He had worked on an electrically controlled torpedo which could be maneuvered on a wire up to two miles ahead of its mother ship. During the Spanish-American War he proposed that the Navy fill shells with a mixture of calcium carbide and calcium phosphate, which when fired at night would burn for several minutes upon impact, thus illuminating enemy ships. He had other even more exotic ideas at this time, such as spraying streams of electrified water on advancing soldiers, varying the voltage in accordance with how nasty you wanted to be (4)! His motivation in making this proposal was suspect, it must be pointed out, because it came while he was trying to persuade the country that alternating current was more dangerous than direct current, which he was championing, and of course alternating current would be needed for his death-dealing water spray!

At the outbreak of World War I, Edison's interest in naval affairs was chiefly limited to his efforts to persuade the Navy to adopt the Edison alkaline storage battery for its ships and submarines over the lead-acid batteries then in general use. The alkaline battery was somewhat safer, more efficient (except at low temperatures), and lasted longer, but it cost more than three times as much as a comparable lead-acid battery. Edison's chief engineer and close associate at this time, a moderately successful inventor and even more skilled promoter named Miller Reese Hutchinson, worked assiduously to promote the Edison battery with the Navy. In the fall of 1914 he arranged for Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to visit Edison at his West Orange plants and laboratory, and Daniels in turn invited Edison and Hutchinson to tour a battleship and submarine at the New York Navy Yard. One may surmise that the virtues of the Edison alkaline battery did not go unsung on this occasion, for several months later Daniels wired Edison: "Have just signed authorization for installation of Edison batteries in [the] L-eight [submarine]."(5). Edison responded gleefully: "I thought I was some optimist but your telegram will cause the boys around here to lash me to the machinery to keep me from flying."(6).

Over the next half dozen years Edison and Secretary Daniels developed a close and special relationship, based no doubt in part on their Jeffersonian instincts and their mutual distrust of the ponderous and pompous naval bureaucracy. A North Carolina editor and prominent Democratic politician, Daniels had been asked to join Woodrow Wilson's cabinet in 1913 largely because of his helpful role as a top lieutenant in Wilson's 1912 presidential campaign. Compared with his youthful Assistant Secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Daniels knew next to nothing about the Navy before he took over the Department. Roosevelt, with his patrician background and yachting experience, got on famously with the Admirals; on the other hand, Daniels' deliberate manner, southern drawl, and old-fashioned dress made it easy to dismiss him as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Years later Roosevelt recalled, "When I first knew him he was the funniest looking hillbilly I had ever seen."(7).

But those who underestimated Daniels generally came to regret it, and Roosevelt in particular came in time to appreciate the political skills and shrewdness of his chief. More important, although Daniels was at times embroiled in serious public controversy over some of his reforms of the naval establishment, he always enjoyed President Wilson's confidence. He was one of only three cabinet secretaries to serve the full eight years of Wilson's administration, and only Gideon Welles under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson held the navy secretaryship for as long a time. Those of you with long memories may recall an earlier paper in which I recounted for the Madison Literary Club some of Daniels' impressive reforms of the Navy Department. The one you probably remember best was his controversial order abolishing the officers' wine mess, especially my account of what was probably the largest and most hilarious cocktail party in history off Veracruz in 1914, when the officers of the Atlantic Fleet frantically tried to get rid of all of their alcoholic beverages the night before Daniels' deadline. Without repeating that earlier paper, suffice it to say that in my view Daniels must be regarded as one of the most innovative and perhaps one of the few great navy secretaries. And one of his significant innovations was to enlist the talents of Thomas A. Edison for naval research.

Following the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, Edison gave a long press interview on the need for greater American preparedness. The New York Times devoted three pages to his remarks. Edison declared that he was opposed to a large standing army or navy but stressed the need to build up a sizable stockpile of modern weapons, ships, and submarines for the defense of America. One of Edison's more novel recommendations was for, the government to create "a great research laboratory, jointly under military and naval and civilian control," whose purpose would be to develop new weaponry and defenses, so that if war came "we could take advantage of the knowledge gained through this research work and quickly manufacture in large quantities the very latest and most efficient instruments of warfare."(8).

Secretary Daniels read the Edison interview with more than passing interest, for the Wilson Administration was moving into a Preparedness policy, and he too had been considering the need to mobilize the inventive genius of Americans to adapt the Navy to the needs of modern warfare. Daniels quickly drafted a letter inviting Edison to head a civilian board that could be the forerunner of a new Navy Bureau of Invention and development:

"I feel that our chances of getting the public interested and back of this project will be enormously increased (Daniels explained] if we can have, at the start, some man whose inventive genius is recognized by the whole world to assist us in consultation from time to time on matters of sufficient importance to bring to his attention. You are recognized by all of us as the man above all others who can turn dreams into realities and who has at his command, in addition to his own wonderful mind, the finest facilities in the world for such work (9)."

A few days later Daniels visited Edison in New Jersey and won his acceptance, after Edison persuaded the Secretary to give the project instant credibility by asking the presidents of the eleven largest engineering and scientific societies in the United States each to nominate two members of a new "Advisory Committee on Inventions." The name was soon changed to the Naval Consulting Board. Edison let it be known that he believed the group would "far outrank any body of scientists and experts that was ever collected together in any single organization."(10). Not everyone in the Navy was so optimistic. F.D.R. privately agreed with some of the admirals that this was yet another of Secretary Daniels' crackpot schemes. As the Board gathered for its first meeting in the fall of 1915, Roosevelt confided to his wife: "Tomorrow the Inventors come in force, but I am dodging the trip to Mt. Vernon. Most of these worthies are like Henry Ford, who until he saw a chance for some publicity free of charge, thought a submarine was something to eat!"(11). President Wilson, on the other hand, told the members of the Board he was proud to be able to call on "the best brains and knowledge of the country" for a task which needed "all sorts of expert and serious advice."(12).

At the first meeting of the Naval Consulting Board Edison was named as President, but because he could hear next to nothing of the discussion William H. Saunders, a well-known mining engineer, was elected Chairman. Edison followed the proceedings by having his associate, Hutchinson, tap messages in Morse code on his knee. Among the more prominent other members of the twenty-four member Board were L. H. Baekeland, President of the General Bakelite Company, Willis R. Whitney, Director of the Research Laboratory at General Electric, Hudson Maxim of the American Aeronautical Society, Peter Cooper Hewitt and Thomas A. Robins, representing the Inventors Guild, Howard E. Coffin of the American Society of'Automotive Engineers, and Elmer Sperry of the American Society of Aeronautic Engineers. Robins, an old Edison associate, was asked to serve as Secretary of the Board. Later physicists Arthur Compton and Robert Millikan , future Nobel Prize winners, and Lee De Forest, the inventor of the radio tube, were associated with the Board, and after the United States entered the war Hewitt was dropped after Naval Intelligence discovered that he had a German mistress (13).

Initially, some of the Board members were apprehensive that it would be difficult to work with the crusty, hard-driving, and independent-minded Edison. After the inventor's death in 1931, however, Millikan recalled the favorable impression Edison had made on him and others:

"He was then, at the age of seventy and more, reading some of the newer books that were appearing in the field of pure science, and asking intelligent questions about them, too. His ears were gone, but there had been no crystallizing of his mind, such as occurs with some of us before we are born; with others, especially with so-called men of action, before we are forty; and with most of us . . . by the time we are seventy. That Edison above all men retained his essential modesty, simplicity, intellectual honesty and willingness to learn, in spite of the disease to which it was his misfortune to be exposed in early life and continuously thereafter, is, I think, the best proof that we have of his real greatness. I refer of course to the disease . . . of publicity and adulation."

Millikan's favorable view was echoed by a French scientist who headed an Allied scientific mission during the war and recorded his impression of Edison:

"Simple, direct, intelligent, unspoiled--a very much greater man than I expected to find in view of the way his name has been exploited and the kinds of influences with which he has been surrounded." (14).

The work of what was sometimes called the Edison Board developed slowly, partly because it initially had no legal status, no budget or staff, and Secretary Daniels had not given it a well-defined mission. Not until August of 1916, more than a year after its conception, did Congress recognize the status of the Board and appropriate $25,000 for its operation. Daniels evidently thought the Board's chief value would be to stimulate and advise on the worth of the ideas submitted to the Navy Department by private inventors from across the country. As it turned out, the initial publicity surrounding the creation of the Board did result in a continuing flood of suggestions about how to improve the Navy's ships and equipment, most of which neither the Board nor the Navy Department was at first prepared to handle. Eventually the Board published a series of technical bulletins outlining problems on which the Navy needed help and an office was established in New York City to receive and screen ideas submitted by civilian inventors. The office received as many as 600 proposals a day and an astounding total of 110,000 during the war (15).

Early in the Board's existence, its members decided they could be most effective if they divided into technical committees devoted to particular topics of interest to the Navy which required their specialized expertise. These committees could provide specialized consultants to the Navy as required and arrange for critical research to be carried out in established civilian laboratories. One of the most significant of these Board committees proved to be the Committee on Industrial Preparedness headed by Howard Coffin. Coffin had earlier achieved agreement for the standardization of many parts used in the fledgling automobile industry. Through his Naval Consulting Board Committee, he recruited associate members across the country, organized them into state and even county committees, drew up an inventory of American manufacturing capacity, and sought to develop common manufacturing standards. Later much of this structure was absorbed under the Council of National Defense after its organization in December of 1916. The establishment of national manufacturing standards - for example, defining the size and pitch of screw threads - was one of the more important developments of the war years, and it was initiated by the Naval Consulting Board (16).

Another significant action of the Naval Consulting Board was its early decision to endorse Edison's call for the creation of a modern Navy scientific and experimental research laboratory to be operated by civilian experts. Although Congress provided $1,000,000 for the laboratory in a 1916 appropriation bill, it was not constructed until after the war largely because of a bitter disagreement over its location. Edison strongly championed Sandy Hook near his own laboratory, whereas most of his colleagues on the Naval Consulting Board favored expanding the rudimentary research facilities at Annapolis. Secretary Daniels delayed making a decision about the lab's location because he hesitated to offend Edison, and then put the project on the shelf after the United States entered the war. Much to Edison's disgust, Daniels eventually accepted the recommendation of the majority of the Board and the Navy's bureau chiefs to locate the laboratory on Navy-owned land just south of Washington. Worse yet in Edison's view, the enabling legislation did not require civilian direction of the Laboratory under the immediate control of the civilian Secretary of the Navy, which Edison believed was essential. "Annapolis produces only students who immediately enter for life into a system that takes away every incentive by which superior men can advance," he warned (17), "I do not believe that there is more than one creative mind produced at Annapolis in three years and this man, by the system employed, has not the slightest chance of ever being known to have this special ability."(18). In fact, Edison felt so strongly that he declined to be associated with the new laboratory: "I am convinced that it will ultimately be controlled by Naval Officers," he explained to Daniels; "that its position at Washington will always be a handicap, and that it will be an expense to the Government without producing any practical results."(19). This judgment was premature and unduly harsh, for the Naval Research Laboratory inspired by Edison was the major government experimental military facility between the two World Wars and as early as 1924 began to develop a crude form of radar.

But I fear I have digressed. This paper promised to focus on Edison, not on the two Navy institutions he inspired, the Naval Consulting Board or the Naval Research Laboratory.

Late in December, 1916, Secretary Daniels visited the inventor in New Jersey and advised him confidentially that the Allies might be defeated if a way were not found to contain the deadly German submarines. He asked Edison to devote more of his attention to the submarine menace. Characteristically, Edison, now nearing his seventieth birthday, announced that he would henceforth put his manufacturing interests under other leadership, and devote the entire facilities of his laboratory and concentrate his full time and efforts on his naval research. For the next two-and-a-half years he did just that, repeatedly bombarding the Navy with advice and new ideas (20). In his Report 29-B, sent to Daniels shortly after the United States entered the war in April of 1917, Edison explained his eclectic approach:

"All I am doing is to 'pull ideas out of the air', so to speak, and by rough experiments learn, if they are workable. If they are, it would be necessary to have them made in outside shops where they have proper facilities. This I will do up to a certain point.

"I am still without adequate information about Submarine warfare in actual practice as no one from either France, Britain or U.S.A. has given me any data of real value. Until I get some kind of data, I will have to depend on my imagination." (21).

Daniels gave Edison Admiral Dewey's old office in the Navy Department and told him he could have anything except his job and could even have that if he discovered a way to end the submarine menace (22).

Edison's quest for data about German submarine operations soon led to one of his most ambitious and useful undertakings. In the summer of 1917, he asked for information on the location of ship sinkings and was told that no such statistics had been compiled. For the next two months he put three men to work in Washington examining the records of shipping lane traffic and ship sinkings, eventually producing on November 21, 1917, a lengthy report and series of recommendations for Secretary Daniels and Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord of the British Admiralty. Edison's report was an intellectual tour de force, and offered some shrewd strategic advice. It was illustrated by a number of graphs and charts and a total of 45 maps, the first of which indicated all of the ships passing in and out of the ports of Britain and France in a single day. "From this map," he noted, "it will be seen that the handling of this vast system of traffic in such a manner as to minimize the sinkings requires a man or men of imagination." The tenor of the report indicated that Edison clearly thought he was such a man. Another map showed the position of all ships sunk between February I and October 12, 1917, and others provided graphic support for various Edison recommendations.

Based on the data he had developed, Edison pointed out that submarine activity was concentrated in a relatively small zone mostly in the established shipping lanes near British and French ports. From this he drew a number of significant conclusions: ships should operate in the English Channel only at night, and should enter and leave port only at night. He warned of the "very dangerous" density of traffic at certain points, and urged that it "be spread over the whole coast of France, Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, as shown in Map No. 4 and not as now, shown in Map No. 3." He urged that the line of traverse and length of time in the submarine danger zone be reduced as much as posssible. Noting that Germany used two sizes of submarines, a smaller sub for attacking coastal traffic and a larger ocean-going model, he advised: "By routing the whole of your traffic as per Map No. 4, you make it necessary for the Enemy to build and operate several times as many ocean-going submarines as they now operate to sink ships at the present rate. As for the small submarines, the passing of the traffic by coasting at night will almost nullify their efforts."

Edison cautioned against allowing ships to continue to follow the prewar shipping lanes which were determined by visual sighting points of lighthouses and coastal features, and urged instead that ships make continuous soundings and determine their positions by means of hydrographic charts. "Boats from abroad," he pointed out, "make the Fastnet Light, the Scillys, or Ushant. Then by day the captains run by sight from point to point along the coast, and at night by the lighthouses. The Germans knowing this, place their submarines in this line and enfilade them. You will note that in mid-channel, between the Scillys and the Bristol Channel and Irish Coast, scarcely any ships have been sunk..." Edison also expressed surprise that as of June 1 only 19% of the ships going in and out of British and French ports had radios, and urged that this defect be remedied, "otherwise it diminishes greatly the value of the destroyers."

Lastly, Edison recommended taking several steps to hide Allied ships from lurking submarines. Each ship should carry a small amount of anthracite coal or coke to substitute for its regular smoky bituminous coal while traversing the danger zone in daylight. He also suggested that ship masts--"which are no longer of any use"--be cut down; that smoke funnels be reduced the a minimum; and that gaps between deck structures be closed by canvas to make an even, tapered contour so as to reduce a ship's familiar silhouette. More important was a technique Edison described as "shadow sailing" while in the submarine danger zone. This required keeping "the bow or stern of the boat pointed as near as possible to the sun," and Edison enclosed maps showing that the technique would not cost much additional distance or carrying capacity.

Edison was skeptical that his lengthy report and numerous recommendations would carry much weight with the Navy brass. "It is probable," he warned, "in fact certain, that if the statements I have made are put up to the average Naval officer, he will at once make a lot of objections, because these views differ from his previous experience, or, possibly, from a lack of imagination if my statements do not appeal to him. In such a case," he suggested shrewdly, "I would request that such objections be reduced to writing, signed by the objector, and forwarded to me for answer."(23). Whether any use was made of these interesting ideas is unknown, but they reflect Edison's approach: assemble and study all available data carefully, test your hypotheses as thoroughly as possible, and rely on your creative imagination to suggest solutions.

Still, Edison clearly preferred an active experimental rather than simply an analytical role, and during the war he conducted experiments on a wide variety of naval problems in his laboratory, on government proving grounds, and at sea. Time does not permit a discussion of all of these activities, but they included a number of submarine detection and anti-submarine defensive devices, stabilizing devices for ships and submarines, and improvements in camouflage and in naval gunnery. Edison might be pardoned for feeling a bit schizophrenic at times, for while he was working on ways to make it easier to see German submarines he was simultaneously trying to make it harder for them to see Allied ships by smudging their periscopes! For one experiment Secretary Daniels arranged for the inventor to use an army air field on Long Island to test methods to improve the accuracy of bombs dropped from the air. (This at a time when the public and military strategists mostly thought of the airplane as a kind of romantic air borne cavalry!) Edison also sought to find a preservative that would protect the guns of our submarines from rust, eventually coming up with a useful compound consisting of vaseline and powdered zinc. He even experimented on flame throwers, building and testing nozzles of every conceivable shape and size to select the one that would throw a stream of fuel the furthest (24).

Edison was concerned about the rapid deterioration of the rifling in large naval guns during firing, and tried to develop a shell that could be fired accurately from a smooth bore cannon. He persuaded the Navy to lend him an old one pounder, and talked a group of neighboring New Jersey farmers into letting him use their land for a two-and-a-half mile firing range. Then to his wife's dismay he had a great time testing his turbine-headed projectiles and shells that deployed fins for stability after being fired. He scoffed at the opinion of the Navy Bureau of Ordnance predicting that the turbine shell would tumble: "My men at the range," he told Daniels, "using a one-pounder, state that while regular projectiles tumble badly those with the turbine head do not tumble."(25). Later, Daniels helped Edison get an obsolete 3 inch gun for his shell experiments, and allowed him to use the Navy's Indian Head proving ground for tests (26).

Edison's gunnery experiments had two major objectives: One was to develop a smooth bore projectile that would not ricochet but could penetrate the water with sufficient force and accuracy to reach all parts of a submarine while it was on the surface recharging its batteries. "The ultimate object I have in view is to increase the danger area of a Submarine," he reported to Daniels, "so that it is vulnerable to projectiles clear to the keel." Such a shell fired from a four inch gun could put a hole through the outer skin of a German submarine "that will keep their motor driven pump pretty busy," Edison explained. "With 2 or 3 such holes--" he left his sentence dangling and likewise left the deadly result to the Secretary's imagination (27).

A second Edison gunnery experiment involved the search for a more effective means of concealing ships by means of smoke projectiles. The inventor favored the use of 20% oleum, because, he reported, "Oleum smoke does not rise like most smoke, but continues to hug the surface."(28). He thought an inexpensive oleum shell should be produced for the three and four inch guns deployed on merchant ships or even for the small Lyle gun carried by all ships for firing lifelines.(29). Oleum smoke shells could be fired he said, "at any time it is thought desirable to hide the ship from the Submarine, or choke the men thereon. The fine Oleum in the cloud has a terrible effect on the lungs," he added, "the price of which is $24.00 per ton for 20% Oleum."(30).

Edison would not rest, however, until he had acquired a boat for his anti-submarine experiments. In the spring of 1917 he obtained Secretary Daniels' permission to charter a yacht for this purpose, but had great difficulty finding a suitable one at a cost he thought reasonable. He suspected this was because the owners hoped the government would commandeer their boats so they would "then get a good price for them." "Many of them are old and the engines defective, approaching the character of junk," he cautioned Daniels. "I think Roosevelt should be warned not to fall into this trap and be saddled with a lot of junk."(31). This last was a reference to F.D.R.'s well-publicized enthusiasm for solving the U-boat problem with a fleet of small anti-submarine boats. After a number of false starts, Daniels finally arranged for Edison to have use of a Navy submarine patrol boat, the S.P. 192, and the Edisons moved to New London, Connecticut, to conduct experiments on Long Island Sound. Always protective, Mrs. Edison insisted on sharing the small cabin aboard ship with the inventor, much to the dismay of the Navy crew. "I detest it on the boat and long to be home, " she wrote one of their sons. "I wish I knew just how much and what Papa wants me out here for. . . . The more cluttered the place the better contented father seems to be. I could kill Hutchinson for ever getting him into this mess."(32). Mrs. Edison worried about her husband's susceptibility to seasickness and his unwillingness to conclude his experiments or ever concede defeat. "It looks like a winter's job as far as father is concerned, as you know father," she lamented in another letter. "He constantly gets new ideas that leads [sic] to more experimenting and halfway never counts with him."(33).

The use of a suitable Navy boat enabled Edison to conduct experiments on a number of projects requiring tests simulating conditions at sea. One of these was a water brake or sea anchor, which he called a "kite rudder," and which when used in conjunction with a ship's engines and regular rudder might enable it to turn quickly enough to avoid an oncoming torpedo. "On a merchant ship I propose to use 2 or 3 fastened to rail of ship." Edison reported. "On signal, they are dropped and instantly act to turn the ship."(34). In one experiment, a fully loaded cargo ship was able to turn 90 degrees in only 200 feet using four sea anchors, whereas it advanced 1,000 feet while executing the same turn with no sea anchors in use (35).

Two of the inventor's other schemes might have come from Rube Goldberg. Noting that 75% of torpedoed ships took more than fifteen minutes to sink, Edison experimented with what he called "collision mats" rolled up at the rail on both sides of a ship for its full length. When torpedoed, these-large mats would be released to cover the hole, and water pressure would hold them against the cargo, slowing the influx of water. "I think 50% of all the torpedoed boats can be saved and got to port," Edison reported to Daniels in a handwritten note from Key West; "officers here think so."(36). An even more fantastic Edison contraption was a 25-foot long tube of rolled up wire mesh made of quarter inch cable. "It resembles a large window curtain," he explained, which would be fired from the ship in the path of an oncoming torpedo:

"When the net strikes the water it unwinds and extends downward 30 feet. From the experiments here we think we can deliver this net at least 950 feet from the boat. Several of these tubes can be mounted together or used separately. The idea is, if the torpedo is seen advancing towards the boat, several nets can be thrown in its path giving sufficient retardation that it will stop or be so delayed as to miss." (37).

Other experiments involved improved methods of detecting and locating submarines. Edison was dissatisfied with ability of the Navy-issue binoculars to he was using to discern objects at night. "I constructed another one based on pure ignorance," he reported. "When the Navy glass shows nothing, this glass showed dim outlines. From this I constructed a second one which I have just tested and which is a further improvement, and resolves dim outlines into details."(38). He experimented with a variety of shipboard locations for detecting submarine periscopes visually, "from the deck and pilot house and through a periscope 1 foot above the water," while trying to spot a dummy periscope extending four feet above the surface of Long Island Sound. "The best place by far is through port holes 30 inches above the water line," Edison concluded, so as to observe the enemy periscope in silhouette. "I do not see why the periscope of any Submarine should not be seen at sea at a distance of greater than 1-1/2 miles," he declared, "and even at a greater distance if it extends higher than 4 feet above the sea."(39).

Shortly after the United States entered the war Edison began working on the much more difficult problem of developing a listening device for detecting submerged submarines. He asked Secretary Daniels for a summary of Navy information on sound detection, and received a confidential memo from the Bureau of Naval Operations declaring that a submarine running submerged "does not make sufficient noise to allow its detection, even when its location is exactly known, at a distance of 200 yards," with any detectors then available in the Navy. "Friend Daniels-" Edison scrawled in reply on the memo. "This dont worry me- It is a very difficult proposition, thats what makes it so delightful to Experiment with." (40).

Edison was not satisfied merely with detecting a submarine by amplifying the sounds of its diesel or electric engines whether running submerged or on the surface; he also hoped to develop a sound range finder to determine the sub's location. He thought such a supersensitive device would also be useful in locating enemy aircraft. Edison concluded the ordinary carbon granule microphone then in use had too high a resistance to pick up very weak sounds, so he experimented with a variety of other materials. Years later, Karl T. Compton, a young Princeton physicist on loan to Edison's lab at this time and later President of M.I.T., recalled the old inventor's infinite patience in this search. Edlison thought metal granules would have less resistance than carbon, but, as he told Compton, they "are too blamed sluggish. We must make them lighter." Edison's approach was to obtain a large supply of hog's bristles from a local brush factory, and then plate them with a variety of metals by various plating techniques. After each bristle had been plated with a thin coating of metal, he cut them into lengths about one hundredth of an inch long. The tiny cylinders were then put in caustic potash ("the stuff men dissolved their murdered wives in," Edison told his staff), which ate away the bristle and left a tiny metal granule shaped like a miniature doughnut. These granules of various metals Edison could then use in his experiments to find a more sensitive medium for his microphone . By the fall of 1917 Edison had achieved a fair degree of success in detecting the sound of a torpedo at distances up to 5,000 yards, far beyond its effective operating distance. As things turned out, however, a more effective approach to submarine detection was devised by another Naval Consulting Board team of electronics experts headed by Willis Whitney of the General Electric Laboratory and Lee De Forest (41).

Still, the youthful Karl Compton was greatly impressed by the old inventor's patience in pursuit of the best solution to a problem. "It is a mistake," he told a group of scientists after Edison's death, "to think that all Edison's work was carried out by this search and trial method."

"He was uncommonly alert to opportunities for supplying a need for presenting an improvement. He was uncommonly ingenious in figuring out ways of designing apparatus to do what he wanted it to do, and he was one of the most patient and persevering men who ever lived in carrying through his ideas to the last stage of comprehensive test." (42).

Although Edison rejoiced when the Whitney-De Forest team came up with a better idea for an electronic sound detector, before that occurred he was enough satisfied with his own improved detection device to recommend that it be used to guard the American coastline in a network of manned buoys whose crews would listen for the sounds of lurking submarines and then would radio their location to coastal patrol boats (43).

Throughout his work for the Navy, Edison tended to have a low regard for the naval establishment and the Navy professionals. "My private opinion is that most of them lack imagination," he told Secretary Daniels (44). He would sometimes titillate Daniels with a brief description of a experiment and say he hesitated to send details because he knew "it would be turned down by someone in a Department who has no imagination." Daniels several times assured him "that any report you may send to me will reach a quarter where it will receive fullest and friendliest consideration."(45). When Edison was told that his compound for smudging enemy periscopes could be cleaned off by spraying a mixture of water and gasoline onto the dirty periscope under high pressure, he changed the formula and responded: -'The Submarine Flotilla does not want to be too sure they can clean off a certain smudge."(46). Occasionally Edison would offer to come to Washington to report personally to Daniels on his progress, "but would request that you and I only be present at our interview."(47). On one occasion Daniels reported that he had been told it would be necessary to make considerable changes in a Navy torpedo tube in order for Edison to be able to fire a Whitehead torpedo for his experiment. Edison responded bluntly:

"Let me say that this is another characteristic sample of the misinformation furnished you by Department chiefs. I was informed and found out myself at Newport that any submarine they had there can fire a Whitehead torpedo without any change. . . . It would be strange if it were not so, as the Government has a large stock of Whitehead torpedos in addition to the Bliss type, I am told."

Daniels immediately wired Edison:

"I have telegraphed Admiral Burd to furnish you what you desire with reference to the experiment." (48).

Another time Edison scrawled a handwritten warning:

Friend Daniels.
Personal & Private.

From the various correspondence and actions of your Department heads I am certain you are being systematically deceived as to their actions, capacity, & efficiency and I hope you will get suspicious!

Thos A Edison
Everything is not by any means what you think it is-

A year after the war Edison told Daniels, "When you are no longer Secretary and have returned to business, I want to tell you a lot of things about the Navy that you are unaware of (50). Still later he told a reporter:

"I made about forty-five inventions during the war, all perfectly good ones, and they pigeon-holed every one of them. The Naval officer resents any interference by civilians. Those fellows are a close[d] corporation." (51).

There was a good deal of truth in Edison's assertion, for he had trouble working within any organizational structure he could not dominate. Still, his years spent working on behalf of the Navy were surely more productive than he admitted. He was the inspiration for the innovative Naval Consulting Board created to draw on civilian expertise to solve the Navy's technical problems. Secretary Daniels frankly admitted that without Edison's participation he would not have proceeded with the body that helped considerably to mobilize the industrial capacity of the country for the war effort. Edison likewise directly inspired the postwar Naval Research Laboratory, although he strongly objected to its location in Washington and thereafter declined to have anything to do with his brainchild. Even though the Navy did not immediately exploit all of his inventions or adopt every one of his ideas, however, Edison made a difference--a considerable difference. Especially in its commitment to applied research, the Navy was never quite the same after its encounter with Thomas Alva Edison. How many of us can claim an accomplishment like that?


1) Dagobert D. Runes, ed., The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), p. 53.

2) New York Times, October 25, 1914, quoted in Matthew Josephson, Edison: a Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959), p. 445.

3) Byron M. Vanderbilt, Thomas Edison, Chemist (Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1971), pp. 248-55.

4) Ronald W. Clark, Edison: the Man Who Made the Future (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977), pp. 220-21.

5) Josephus Daniels, Washington, to Thomas A. Edison, Orange, February 11, 1915, Daniels Papers, Box 92.

6) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, February 11, 1915, Daniels Papers, Box 92. Unfortunately, the Edison battery was subsequently discredited by a careless but disastrous accident. In January, 1916, while another submarine, the E-2, was discharging and recharging its Edison batteries, a spark set off a dangerous accumulation of hydrogen gas, killing five men and injuring seven others. Edison subsequently settled a half-million dollar law suit brought by relatives of the victims for $66,000. Testimony at a Navy court of inquiry revealed that the E-2's crew had neglected safety procedures, but the incident led the Navy to resume use of the lead-acid battery. Robert Conot, A Streak of Luck (New York: Seaview Books, 1979), p. 390.

7) Jonathan Daniels, The End of Innocence (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1954), p. 54.

8) New York Times, May 30, 1915, quoted in Clark, Edison, p. 221. See also New York World, May 30, 1915.

9) Daniels, Washington, to Edison, Orange, July 7, 1915, Daniels Papers, Box 39. See also draft dated May 31, 1915. Lloyd N. Scott, Naval Consulting Board of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920), pp. 9-11, 286-88; E. David Cronon, ed., The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels. 1913-1921 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), entry of June 30, 1915, p. 102.

10) 10.Clark, Edison, p. 222.

11) Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington, to "Dearest Babs," October 5, 1915, in Elliott Roosevelt, ed., The Roosevelt Letters (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1950), Vol. II, p. 241.

12) Woodrow Wilson, "Remarks to the Naval Consulting Board," October 6, 1915, in Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), vol. XXXV, p. 29.

13) Cronon, ed., Cabinet Diaries, entry of March 1, 1918, p. 285.

14) Quoted in Vanderbilt, Edison, Chemist, pp. 261, 263; Clark, Edison, p. 229.

15) Scott, Naval Consulting Board, pp. 122-25.

16) Ibid., pp. 26-63.

17) Edison, Orange, to Thomas Robins, New York, February 4, 1919, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

18) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, November 7, 1919, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

19) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, December 13, 1920, Daniels Papers, Box 39. See also Edison to Daniels, October 8, November 8, and December 17, 1920, and Edison, Orange, to W. L. Saunders, New York, January 28, 1920, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

20) Conot, Streak of Luck, p. 416; Josephson, Edison, p. 452; Clark, Edison, p. 226; Vanderbilt, Edison, Chemist, p. 264.

21) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 16, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

22) Cronon, ed., Cabinet Diaries, October 10, 1917, p. 218.

23) Edison, Orange, to Sir Eric Geddes, London, November 21, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39. See also Edison to Daniels, July 27, 1917, in which he reported having communicated several of these anti-submarine detection ideas to the Cunard Line, ibid.; Cronon, ed., Cabinet Diaries, August 16, 20, October 16, 29, and November 21, 1917, pp. 191, 193, 222, and 228.

24) See Scott, Naval Consulting Board, pp. 160-92, for a lengthy illustrated summary of Edison's naval experiments.

25) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 8, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

26) Daniels, Washington, to Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, Washington, September 6, 1918, Daniels Papers, Box, 39.

27) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, July 27, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39. See also Edison to Daniels, August 13, 1917, ibid.

28) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, September 1, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

29) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, August 29 and 31, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

30) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, July 26, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

31) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 31, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

32) Mina Edison to Charles Edison, September 24, 1917, quoted in Conot, Streak of Luck, p. 417.

33) Ibid., September 27, 1917, p. 417.

34) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, August 13, 16, and 31, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

35) Scott, Naval Consulting Board, pp. 164-65.

36) Edison, Key West, to Daniels, Washington, (February) 10, 1918, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

37) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 14, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

38) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 3, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

39) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 7, July 9, and August 31, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

40) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, April 14, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

41) Scott, Naval Consulting Board, pp. 161-64; Vanderbilt, Edison, Chemist, pp. 268-69; Josephson, Edison, pp. 452-53; Clark, Edison, pp. 226-27.

42) Vanderbilt, Edison, Chemist, pp. 270-71.

43) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, March 28, April 16, May 16, and June 26, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

44) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, March 28, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

45) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, March 28, 1917; Daniels to Edison, April 5, 1917, both in Daniels Papers, Box 39.

46) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, March 7, 1917, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

47) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, May 6, 1918, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

48) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, November 14, 1918; Daniels to Edison, November 15, 1918, both in Daniels Papers, Box 39.

49) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, October 28, 1918, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

50) Edison, Orange, to Daniels, Washington, November 71 1919, Daniels Papers, Box 39.

51) New York World, February 13, 1923, quoted in Josephson, Edison, p. 454.

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